LOUIS ARMSTRONG-LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS FRIENDS.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG-LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS FRIENDS.
1970 is remembered as a landmark year for Louis Armstrong. It was the year Louis and an all-star band, headed into the studio to record an album to celebrated his seventieth birthday. The album was Louis Armstrong and His Friends, which was recently rereleased on Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. It was recorded over three days in May 1970. Louis Armstrong and His Friends was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. However, Louis Armstrong and Bob Thiele had jumped the gun.
When Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday in August 1970, he was only sixty-nine. Louis would never get the opportunity to celebrate this seventieth birthday. Tragically, Louis Armstrong died on the 6th of July 1971, less than a month short of his seventieth birthday. Louis Armstrong and His Friends, proved to be Louis Armstrong’s swan-song. Was Louis Armstrong and His Friends a fitting finale to one of jazz music’s true long and illustrious career?
By the time Louis Armstrong signed to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records, he was one of the biggest names in jazz music. He’d come a long way since his early days in New Orleans.
It’s no exaggeration to say, that Louis Armstrong was born into abject poverty. He spent his early years in one of New Orleans’ poorest areas. Poverty was rife in Uptown, New Orleans. When Louis was still an infant, things got tougher.
His father abandoned his young family, and went to live with another woman. After that, Louis’ mother left her family. She placed them in the care of Louis’ grandmother and uncle.
Then when Louis was five, his mother returned and he and his sister went to live with his mother’s family. Louis only ever saw his father occasionally. He later remembered seeing his father taking part in a parade. Still, life for Louis and his sister was tough. Louis had a series of odd jobs that brought some money into the household. Despite this, there was never enough money to make ends meet. However, later, music however, offered Louis an escape from poverty.
Louis had been introduced to music at school. When he left school age eleven, Louis joined a quartet who sang in the streets. At night, Louis spent time listening to bands in New Orleans. Before long, he start teaching himself to play trumpet. Self taught, he learnt to play by ear. Little did anyone realise, Louis would become a musical legend.
Certainly not when Louis found himself in the New Orleans Home for Coloured Waifs. He was a serial offender. One of the most series offences came when Louis discharged his stepfather’s pistol. Ironically, his spells in the Home allowed Louis to hone his musical style. It proved to be a somewhat unorthodox musical apprenticeship for Louis. By the end of his time in the Home, Louis was the bandleader. Then when he was fourteen, Louis was released and returned home. It was then that Louis got his first job playing in a dancehall.
It was at Henry’s Ponce’s that Louis made his debut. He played their by night and worked as coal man by day. Soon, Louis was playing in New Orleans’ legendary parades. Older musicians, especially Joe “King” Oliver took Louis under their wing. He mentored Louis, who soon, got a job working on the steamboat, Fate Marable. This was where Louis mastered reading written arrangements. Then in 1919, Joe “King” Oliver left Kid Ory’s band and Louis replaced him. At the same time, Louis joined the Tuxedo Brass Band. Louis’ career was just about to begin in earnest.
The twenties were a hugely important decade for Louis Armstrong. He moved to Chicago, which was then jazz central. He joined Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922. This was a huge step for Louis. Soon, Louis’ reputation was growing. He became known as one of the top musicians in Chi Town. Before long, Louis was living the high life. For fun, Louis enjoyed taking part in cutting contests, where jazz men challenged each other to blow 200 high consecutive high Cs. Not many could do this. Louis could. Throughout his career, Louis enjoyed cutting contests. However, with his reputation growing, it would’t be long before Louis made his recording debut.
In 1925, Louis made his recording debut for the Okeh label. This wasn’t with the Creole Jazz Band. No. It was Louis’ own band, the Hot Five and Hot Seven. Featuring a lineup of Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Earl Hines, who replaced Louis’ wife on piano, the Hot Five and Hot Seven were a groundbreaking band. They made many a standard their own. The Hot Five and Hot Seven set the bar high. Especially when Louis recorded Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1929. This was the first track to showcase Louis’ vocal prowess. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gave Louis the biggest hit of his career. For Louis, this was the perfect way for the twenties to end.
As a new decade dawned, Louis was under new management. Joe Glaser, who was allegedly a friend if Al Capone, became Louis’ manager. With Joe Glaser guiding his career, Louis found himself fronting a big band by the end of the thirties. They were called Louis Armstrong and His Stompers. A hugely successful band, their commercial success lasted right through until 1947. However, by then, keeping a big band on the road was becoming prohibitively expensive. So, Louis had to rethink his band.
Louis’ next band was The All Stars. They were a much smaller band. What they lacked in numbers, they made up in skill and charisma. The All Stars toured extensively and always, drew large crowds. So, it made sense to record a series of albums. Their best albums were The All Stars Plays W.C. Handy and The All Stars Plays Fats. Just like Louis previous band, The All Stars enjoyed longevity.
Having began in 1947, The All Stars career lasted right through the fifties and sixties. Each year, they averaged roughly 300 concerts a year. Then there were appearances in films. The All Stars were even more successful than Louis previous bands. Just like Louis, they enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim.
Louis released Hello Dolly as a single in 1964. It reached number one in the US Billboard 100. So successful was Hello Dolly, that it knocked The Beatles of the number one spot. Three years later, Louis recorded a song that’s become synonymous with Louis Armstrong. This was What A Wonderful World. It reached number one in the UK. A year later, in 1968, Louis recorded We Have All The Time In The World, which became the theme for the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We Have All The Time In The World became another Louis Armstrong classic. For Louis, the sixties were the most successful and prolific decade of his career.
Throughout the sixties, Louis Armstrong released a series of albums. He was a truly prolific artist. He released about twenty albums for various labels. Louis was signed to labels like Decca, Coral, Kapp, Mercury, Brunswick, Stateside and ABC Records. It was at ABC Records that Louis first met Bob Thiele.
Bob started work at Impulse 1961 and spent eight years there. During that time, Bob Thiele enjoyed the busiest period of his career. Bob, he was hardly away from the studio, producing over 150 albums in eight years. This included John Coltrane’s seminal album A Love Supreme. Ironically, Bob’s most successful production was Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. Not all of Bob Thiele’s production’s were as successful. Innovative music didn’t always equate to commercially successful music.
Through working with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz, Bob must have realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. Often, these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, meaning they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they’d like.
Soon, Bob Thiele, would be able to create an environment where this would be possible. By 1969, Bob had been at Impulse for eight years. He’d been responsible for producing some of the most important jazz music of the sixties. However, there’s no sentiment in music. In the musical equivalent of a musical coup d’tat, Bob Thiele was ousted from his role at Impulse. This proved to the start of the next chapter in his career.
Leaving Impulse in 1969, Bob founded Flying Dutchman Productions. This would become home to everyone from Ornette Coleman, through Gil Scott Heron, Leon Thomas, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Louis Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong’s one and only album for Flying Dutchman Productions was Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Joining Louis were some of the biggest names in jazz. It’s no exaggeration to call it an all-star cast that accompanied Louis. However, Louis Armstrong and His Friends was unlike any album Louis had recorded.
For Louis Armstrong and His Friends, Bob Thiele chose a mixture of classics, hits and familiar faces. This included Mood Indigo, Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echoes), What A Wonderful World, John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance and Leon Thomas and Pharaoh Saunders’ The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace). There was also a cover of the protest song We Shall Overcome. Bob Thiele who penned What A Wonderful World with George David Weiss, cowrote two other tracks. George and Bob penned Father Wore Long Hair with with Pauline Rivelli. Bob coyote Boy From New Orleans with Bob Katz and Ruth Roberts. The other two tracks were Lorenzo Pack’s This Black Cat Has 9 Lives and Robert Medelin and Guy Wood’s My One And Only Love. These ten tracks, which became Louis Armstrong and His Friends, were recorded by a band featuring some top session players.
The recording of Louis Armstrong and His Friends took place on the 26th, 27th and 29th May 1970. Over three days, Louis Armstrong and His Friends recorded ten tracks. Different players played on different tracks. Strings, horns, a chorus and the rhythm section joined forces. The rhythm section included bassist Richard Davis, electric bassists Chuck Rainey and John Williams Jr, electric guitarist Kenny Burrell and Sam Brown, plus drummer Petty Purdie. Other musical luminaries included flautist James Spaulding, pianist Frank Owens and trumpeter Thad Jones. These were just a few of the musicians who joined Louis in recording the album that celebrated his seventieth birthday, Louis Armstrong and His Friends. It was released later in 1970.
Louis Armstrong and His Friends was a mixture of the old and new. Bob Thiele, who produced Louis Armstrong and Friends had pushed Louis to release music that normally, he wouldn’t have considered recording. Normally, Louis Armstrong wouldn’t have recorded Give Peace A Chance or The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace). Along with We Shall Overcome, this was some of the most political music Louis Armstrong had recorded. On its release, Louis Armstrong and His Friends was well received. Critics enjoyed hearing another side to Louis Armstrong. Sadly, Louis Armstrong and His Friends didn’t sell well. Less than a year later, Louis Armstrong was dead. Was Louis Armstrong and His Friends a fitting finale to his career? That’s what I’ll tell you.
We Shall Overcome opens Louis Armstrong and His Friends. For the recording Bob Thiele threw a party and invited Miles Davis, Chico Hamilton, Leon Thomas, Ornette Coleman and Tony Bennett. They contribute the chorus. Horns soar above the arrangement and drums signal the arrival of Louis’ hopeful, punchy vocal. He’s accompanied by a piano, ride and wandering bass. Horns rasp as the chorus joins Louis. A blazing horn punctuates the arrangement as the chorus returns. They help Louis reinvent Pete Seeger’s song. It takes on a joyous, hopeful sound.
Not only did Fred Neil write Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echoes), but he sung the definitive version. Louis’ version sees the tempo increase and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Strings sweep and the piano helps propel the arrangement along. Sitting atop the arrangement is Louis’ carefree vocal. He paints pictures, as he brings new meaning to a classic track.
Having recorded the definitive version of What A Wonderful World, Bob Thiele felt that Louis should rework a song that was synonymous with him. That was a huge risk. After all, he was never going to better the original version. All he could do was reinterpret the lyrics, and attempt to breath new life, meaning and emotion into them. That’s what he does. He changes the introduction. His lived-in vocal is a soliloquy, as he ponders the world’s problems. Then before long, comes that familiar rasping vocal. Accompanied by lush, cascading strings, piano, flute and the rhythm section, Louis reworks the lyrics. With emotion and sincerity, What A Wonderful World takes on a new relevance.
Boy From New Orleans was written with Louis in mind, by Bob Thiele, Bob Katz and Ruth Roberts. The arrangement is based on When The Saints Go Marching In. High kicking horns set the scene for Louis. Soon, he’s accompanied by the piano and bass. Memories come flooding back for Louis. He grabs the song, and makes it work. As for his all-star band, they ensure the song swings. Blazing horns are at the heart of the arrangement as seamlessly, Louis rolls back the years. Later, a misty-eyed Louis gives thanks for his career as the track reaches a dramatic crescendo.
A probing bass, percussion and piano opens The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace). Soon, strings sweep and a flute cascades. Then Louis and Leon Thomas scat, as the atmospheric arrangement unfolds. Fittingly, the man who popularised and pioneered scatting, Louis Armstrong, is accompanied by another musician who also utilised scatting, Leon Thomas. With a roll of drums, Leon’s tender vocal is accompanied by Louis’ deep, hopeful vocal. Although an unlikely partnership, Leon and Louis work well together. Leon’s vocal becomes like an instrument as a he scats. Against the understated, atmospheric arrangement, Louis and Leon become like yin and yang.
Just a lone piano and understated rhythm section set the scene for an urgent vocals on Give Peace A Chance. They’re delivered at hopefully and urgently at breakneck speed. Louis is content to play a supporting role. His vocal sweeps in and out, soaring above the arrangement. His gravely vocal combines power and passion. Later, the arrangement grows in power. It builds and builds. Growling horns, gospel-tinged harmonies, handclaps and piano join with the rhythm section in helping Louis create an rousing version of a familiar protest song.
Mood Indigo must be one of the most covered songs in musical history. Louis has recorded it before. So he sets about reinventing the track. A cascading flute, flourishes of strings and piano combine. They’re joined by the rhythm section. Together, they provide the backdrop for Louis. He strolls his way through the lyrics, and with the help of his band, totally reinvents a familiar and classic track.
His Father Wore Long Hair has a wistful, understated introduction. Just a piano accompanies Louis’ emotive vocal. Strings sweep in. Drums are played subtlety and briefly, a flute soars above the arrangement. It’s a mixture of drama and emotion, and is the perfect foil for Louis vocal as memories come flooding. He sings the lyrics as if they’re personal.
Strings sweep and a flute flutters above the arrangement to My One And Only Love. Along with a piano, they play the introduction to My One And Only Love. They set the scene for Louis’ heartfelt, seductive vocal. It’s beauty is captivating on what’s not just a beautiful paean, but one of the highlights of Louis Armstrong and His Friends.
Louis Armstrong and His Friends closes with This Black Cat Has 9 Lives. Drums pound, horns bray and strings sweep before Louis’ vocal enters. He seems determined to make the song swing. Louis succeeds. Accompanied by stabs of blazing horns, piano, pounding drums and percussion, Louis shows what he’s capable of and one last time, rolls back the years.
Even though he was a year early, Bob Thiele’s decision to put together an all-star band to record an album to celebrate Louis Armstrong’s seventieth birthday, was a masterstroke. After all, it gave jazz musicians of different generations the opportunity to celebrate the career of one the greats of jazz. The great and the good of jazz turned up. This included Miles Davis, Chico Hamilton, Leon Thomas, Ornette Coleman and Tony Bennett. They were joined by Chuck Rainey, Kenny Burrell, Petty Purdie, James Spaulding and Thad Jones. Each and every one of these musicians pulled out the stops on Louis Armstrong and His Friends.
Given Louis Armstrong’s advancing years and ailing health, each of the musicians gave their all. They were determined Louis Armstrong and His Friends would be a fitting celebration of Louis’ career. Bob Thiele chose the material for Louis Armstrong and His Friends carefully. Classics, hits and new songs sat side-by-side. Each featured the unmistakable voice of Louis Armstrong. By now, he wasn’t playing his trumpet much. Instead, he left that to a new generation of musicians. Louis however, was still able to bring a song to life.
He breathed life and meaning into protest songs like We Shall Overcome and Give Peace A Chance. What A Wonderful World took on new life. Louis reworked and politicised the lyrics. Louis and Leon Thomas reworked The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace). Just like so many other songs on Louis Armstrong and His Friends, it takes on new meaning. Other tracks were tailor made for Louis Armstrong.
This includes Boy From New Orleans. Listening to the lyrics, it’s easy to imagine them being about a young Louis Armstrong. Maybe so did Louis. He makes the song come to life, injecting emotion and drama. The same can be said of My Father Wore Long Hair. Louis, with the benefit of a lifetime’s experience, interprets the lyrics in a way that they seem real. They come alive and tug at your heartstrings. What helps is Louis’ lived-in, all-seeing, worldweary vocal, plus a band full of some top class musicians. Despite its undoubtable quality, when Louis Armstrong and His Friends was released in 1970, it wasn’t a commercial success. Worse was to come for Louis.
Sadly, Louis Armstrong would never did get the opportunity to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Tragically, Louis Armstrong died on the 6th of July 1971, less than a month short of his seventieth birthday. Louis Armstrong and His Friends, which was recently rereleased on Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records, proved to be Louis Armstrong’s swan-song. Louis Armstrong and His Friends was a fitting finale to the career of one of jazz music’s true pioneers.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG-LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS FRIENDS.